Back in 2014, I wrote an article entitled, “Eight Things to Expect from an Agency Partner” that appeared in Aberdeen’s CMO Essentials. I hadn’t thought about for quite some time, but after reading Forrester’s recent report, “The 2020 COVID-19 Crisis Will Stun US Marketing,” and their assertion that CMOs will need to adapt to survive—because “headcount spend will dive”—it occurred to me that there may be a clear role in the mix for the right agency partner.
So, how do you identify the “right” agency? At times like these, I think pragmatism is key. A partner who can roll-up their collective sleeves, help you figure out what makes sense—and then go do it. As an extension of your internal team. Hand-in-hand in the foxhole.
As I thought about the characteristics of an agency like that—this article came to mind, and I thought it might be helpful to republish. Having sat in both seats at the table (client-side and agency side), I see eight essential qualities every organization should expect—and deserves—from their agency partner.
Your agency partner should never claim to know more about your business than you do. But whatever they lack in business knowledge out of the gate, they should more than make up for in enthusiasm for getting up to speed quickly and working hard to move your business forward. They should be driven to understand what you’re trying to accomplish and why—and have a thirst for understanding your customers inside and out. It’s the only way to develop creative solutions that’ll help make their lives better. This passion should be evident in all they do and leave you thinking, “I’m so glad that I chose them.”
Marketing across today’s complex and ever-changing ecosystem requires a broad range of expertise that may be difficult to assemble (and employ full-time) in-house. For agency and in-house marketers alike, research shows that a key differentiator between top performers and their average and laggard peers is the expertise to excel in this environment. So, you must select an agency that complements your internal team nicely across your various programs, departments, or initiatives. For example, if you have a strong internal brand team, perhaps you need a partner with strong digital chops. Agencies have the luxury of working with several clients with varying needs—so chances are they have the expertise. But it’s important to prioritize your specific gaps and vet out agency partners accordingly via a weighted scorecard.
Because you expect a high level of expertise from your agency partner, you should appreciate their candor when they question things—even one of your sacred cows. It’s important that you hear their perspective and understand what’s driving it. If it turns out that they’ve based their POV on misinformation, it’s an opportunity to educate them on the nuances they may not have considered. And there will probably be something to glean from hearing them out. But you’ll never benefit from their passion and expertise if you don’t appreciate their candor (presuming that candor goes both ways and there’s an openness to realignment once they’re better informed).
Harry S. Truman said, “It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.” It’s a great mantra, but it’s also amazing how little you can accomplish if no one’s willing to step up and take accountability when things go awry. That’s why it’s so important to have an agency partner who’s willing to own their work and its results—especially when there are multiple agencies involved or a mix of internal and external resources. The best agency partners won’t deflect issues, they’ll embrace them as an opportunity to learn and improve. Chances are, the campaign (or other initiatives) will be all the better for it.
In the wrong hands, flexibility can be dangerous. After all, a process that works is one worth repeating. But here’s the thing: S%#! happens. And when it does, it’s important to have an agency partner that’s nimble enough to react in the most effective way possible. If you’ve engaged a partner that has a high level of accountability, they should be looking for inventive solutions, and have enough skin in the game to find that right balance of proven process and flexibility that calms the storm rather than adding to the swirl.
Few things in life matter as much as common sense. But it’s interesting how quickly that can go out the window. It’s important to have an agency partner that can keep a cool head and has the wherewithal to make the right decision—even if it goes against process. Remember the episode of The Office when Michael drives his car into the lake because the GPS told him to continue straight? He stopped the car. He considered the lake. And then he followed the process into the muck. It’s important to have an agency partner who won’t drive you into the lake because they’re following their own rigid process or somehow believe that it’s “what you wanted.” Common sense will help in these situations.
If you have the right people on the bus, you can go to the moon, and if you have the wrong people, you can get stuck—regardless of the individual skill sets. At the end of the day, several agencies likely have the expertise that can help you accomplish your goal, but it’s only when the collective team has that palpable spark that you create something special. I would argue that team chemistry is the number one indicator of success, and it’s why companies that treat their agencies as partners rather than vendors get the most out of them. Of course, that works both ways. So if there’s a particular team member on the agency side who just doesn’t seem to click (i.e., no one on your team can stand to work with him)—don’t be afraid to discuss the matter candidly and see if there may be a resource available who’s a better cultural fit.
Results matter. And if you’ve adhered to everything else on this list, positive results should follow—especially over the long term. Unfortunately, good decisions don’t always yield good outcomes (luckily, bad decisions don’t always yield bad outcomes). But if you’re clear about what success looks like at the onset of an engagement, everyone should be well-aligned and rowing toward a common goal. Remember: it’s never too late NOT to make a bad decision. Don’t just follow through with something because you’re in up to your elbows. Take into account how the market is reacting and, if necessary, challenge your agency partner for an adjustment plan. If they’re the partner you thought they were when you hired them they’ll already have a revised plan in progress.
This list may not be exhaustive, and it may differ slightly for your organization. But it’s always a good reminder to gut-check your partners against whatever basic qualities you hold dear.
If you’re exploring the possibility of working with an agency partner to augment your internal team, please contact us here to learn more about our services and how we might be able to adapt to these unprecedented times.